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Sunday, August 25, 2013

Jesus, Satan, and the Bent-Over Woman

In this part of the story Jesus is on his way from the hill country of Galilee up to Jerusalem.  Today we could make that trip in a couple of hours.  We could hop in a car, get on the highway and be there in time for dinner.  But Jesus would have been walking.  Assuming the average human walking speed of about 20 miles per day, this is a trip that would have taken him about 5 days. 

It’s not a terribly long trip (at least for those like Jesus who would have been accustomed to walking such distances).  But Luke seems to stretch it out a bit.  Jesus must be taking the scenic route – stopping at every little town and village along the way…Between the beginning of his journey in Luke 9:51 and his arrival in Jerusalem in chapter 19 (somewhere between verses 41 and 45…)  - Ten Chapters - Jesus is involved in preaching and teaching and healing and telling parables all along the way.  Some of Jesus’ most memorable stories were told along the road to Jerusalem.

Actually, our estimate of 5 days might have to be modified.  It would be about 5 days if he were walking straight through, but that fails to take into account Sabbath days. If he started mid-week, then Jesus could expect to stop for the Sabbath.  And since he seems to have been taking the long roundabout route, it’s likely that he stopped for several Sabbaths along the way.  On Sabbath days – the day given to rest and worship – Jewish people were to limit their walking distance to about 2,000 cubits, roughly three-fifths of a mile. 

But this is no bother.  He doesn’t exactly seem to be in a hurry.  We’re stretching this 5 day walk over 10 chapters; so he has plenty of time to linger.  And besides, Jesus liked to be in the synagogue on Sabbath days.  It was his custom to be there with others of his faith even as he journeyed from place to place, from town to town and village to village, you could always find him in the local synagogue on any given Sabbath.  He taught the people there.  He met them there, shared with them, and ministered to them.  So as he made the long journey from Capernaum – his base of operations in Galilee – to Jerusalem, Jesus stopped for Sabbath rest and joined the worshipping community in the synagogue wherever he was.

There was only one Temple for Jewish people; it was located in Jerusalem, and it was there that they would gather to worship with the sacrifice of animals and grain offerings.  There was only one Temple but there were many synagogues – in fact wherever there were Jews in community there were synagogues, sometimes called houses of prayer. 

In larger communities these synagogues may have had a building reserved exclusively for synagogue activities and a full time leader or teacher.  But in smaller rural communities it may have been converted house, whose leader may have held another occupation during the week.  People attending the synagogue sat on benches around the outer edge of the room, while the speaker stood in the center of the room.  This arrangement encouraged questions and discussion among the gathered community.

The leader would speak, perhaps ask someone from the congregation (a literate someone) to read from the sacred scrolls.  Prayers were prayed and hymns were sung.  Visitors were welcomed and allowed to speak if they had something to share with the others.

And this is what Jesus liked to do, to teach in the synagogues.

On this particular Sabbath (Luke 13: 10 – 17), Jesus is in the synagogue of some unnamed village or town, and he is teaching.  Luke doesn’t provide us with any detail about his teaching – perhaps it was one of the parables that Luke records in these 10 chapters – but in the middle of his teaching Jesus saw a woman among the congregation – a bent-over woman, who had, for 18 long years, been crippled by a “spirit of infirmity.” She had been unable to stand upright.  Her face was forever down towards the dirt; she was unable to look up to heaven, or to look into the faces of those around her.  And Jesus called her forward, into the center of the room so that everyone could see her.

And though Luke describes her disability as being an affliction caused by a “spirit of infirmity,” Jesus does not treat it as an exorcism.  There is no evil spirit being cast out, there is no demonic presence exorcised.  Luke describes it as a healing.  Jesus says to her, “Woman, you are loosed – you are freed – from your infirmity.”  And then he placed his hands on her and she was immediately well.

I can imagine her in that moment slowly standing upright for the first time in 18 years – I can hear all the snaps and pops along her vertebrae and neck and she extends her frame.  I can see the smile on her face as she lifts her hands and her face up towards heaven to praise the God that had given her this healing.  She praised and glorified God.

But not everyone was happy.

This is one of three Sabbath day healings that Luke records in his gospel.  In the other two Jesus is confronted by upset members of the Pharisee party.  And though the leader of the synagogue in this story is not specifically described as a Pharisee, he certainly sounds like one.

This man was vexed – irritated – (or to use my own personal favorite neologism, he was “disgustipated”)

“There are six days for work” he snapped at the crowd and – indirectly- at Jesus.  “Come back on any of those days to be healed. Not on the Sabbath!”

The German language has a word, schadenfreude, which describes the pleasure derived from seeing someone else suffer.  Think of the enjoyment we have in watching a Three Stooges movie, as they fall, and get slapped, and poked in the eye.  That’s schadenfreude.  But the leader of this synagogue he has the opposite of schadenfreude.  He derives displeasure from someone else’s joy.

Where Jesus had previously called out the bent-over woman, he now singles out the synagogue leader,  “You Hypocrites!”    And then proceeds to tear into him.  “Don’t each one of you untie your ox or donkey – even on the Sabbath – so that you can lead it to water?”  If this untying of farm animals is permitted on the Sabbath (the day for rest) then how much more should the untying of this “daughter of Abraham”? 

We usually read about the “sons of  Abraham” but here, in this patriarchal culture, Jesus lifts up the dignity of this previously bent-over woman and gives her the noble title, “daughter of Abraham.” His healing was of more than her body.  He healed her mind, and her soul as well.  He restored her body and restored her dignity, her self-worth.  He restored her rightful place among the community.

And though I pointed out earlier that Jesus doesn’t treat this “spirit of infirmity” as an exorcism story, there is a satanic power being overthrown here.  The word “Satan” in Hebrew means “opponent” or “adversary” and whether he knew it or not, the leader of the synagogue in that unnamed village was acting as the Satan – the opponent, the adversary that morning.  He indignantly opposed the breaking in of God’s kingdom.  He opposed this display of God’s glory.

Though he thought he was honoring God by keeping the strictures of the law regarding work on the Sabbath, his spitefulness towards this oppressed woman was evidence of his own “spirit of infirmity.” Jesus came to heal and to restore and to give life and dignity to oppressed and downtrodden people.  He came to lift them up – quite literally in the case of this bent-over woman.  He came to restore their dignity and their worth. To give them honor as God’s favored children. 

And any who oppose this work are agents of Satan – opponents and adversaries of the Kingdom of God.  Any who seek to stop us as we restore broken lives and lift up the fallen are oppressive agents.  Any who resist us as we comfort the dispossessed and as we welcome those who have been shunned are Satans to be cast out.

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